HMS NEPTUNE sank with the loss of all but one of her Ship's company on the night of 19 December 1941. The tragedy took the lives of 757 officers and ratings; Able Seaman John Norman Walton was the sole survivor. Of those lost in NEPTUNE, 150 were New Zealanders, and 80 of them had served in the Naval Reserve before the outbreak of war.
HMS NEPTUNE (right) - photo courtesy of RNZN Museum
Early in 1941, the New Zealand Government had responded to the Admiralty's request for more sailors to man the increasing number of ships being brought into war service. It was intended to form a New Zealand crew for an additional cruiser; NEPTUNE had been approved for this purpose. She had been expected to leave the United Kingdom for New Zealand in May, but instead she was attached to the Seventh Cruiser Squadron in the Mediterranean because of the heavy loss of cruisers suffered during the Crete campaign.
HMS NEPTUNE's ships badge - photo courtesy of the RNZN Museum.
At that time there was considerable effort concentrated on disrupting enemy supply lines from Italy to North Africa. In the months leading up to December 1941, as many as 77% of ships sailing from Italy to Tripoli were sunk.
NEPTUNE joined Admiral Cunningham's Force K, based on Malta. On 17 December 1941 every available ship was deployed in an effort to ensure that the oiler HMS BRECONSHIRE arrived safely in Malta. The threat came not only from aircraft but also from two Italian Battleships, whose presence indicated the Italians' intention to sail a convoy to Tripoli. Force K sailed 18 December 1941 in an attempt to intercept it.
It was blowing hard from the SW with a heavy sea. At one o'clock in the morning, the ships were 20 miles from Tripoli when NEPTUNE triggered a mine with one of her paravanes. Directly behind her, AURORA also triggered a mine. Whilst going full astern, NEPTUNE triggered two more mines that damaged her propellers and steering gear. Force K was in a deep-water minefield.
During the following three hours there were many attempts to assist both NEPTUNE and the destroyer KANDAHAR, which was also badly damaged. However NEPTUNE struck another mine at 0400 and sank within a few minutes. Just sixteen men survived the ordeal and managed to climb aboard a raft, but during the next five days they died one after another. John Norman Walton alone survived, and was rescued by the Italians on Christmas Eve to become a prisoner of war.
As her company fought to save NEPTUNE during those perilous hours, there would have been many acts of gallantry and heroism that went unrecorded. The loss of NEPTUNE remains the greatest single tragedy New Zealand Naval Forces have experienced.
Link to HMS Neptune Association
RNZNVR - Roll of Honour
NGAPONA - AUCKLAND
The Anderson twins, Able seaman Henry Bruce Anderson and Able Seaman William John Anderson both aged 20 years from Glendowie, Auckland. They were both lost on HMS Neptune - photo courtesy of the RNZN Museum
OLPHERT - WELLINGTON
PEGASUS - CHRISTCHURCH
LECKIE, J.C. DSM